March 2012

My Mega Million Dreams and Rays Aspirations

It has been an odd kind of day today. As I was sitting in the grandstands of McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida today awaiting the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates taking the field I began thinking a whole heck of a lot about the possibilities, great changes and even a few rearrangements I could do if those lucky number somehow popped into my mind before 11 pm EST. They really got the name of the Lotto drawing right because Mega Millions is just what it is all about tonight.

I have been all up in my head today thinking of ways to spend, circulate and even give back or pay forward with an award of close to $ 640 million dollars. To put it into prospective, if I win this kind of payout, I could almost singlehandedly have enough greenbacks to be the second part of a stadium deal for the Rays. Sure a new stadium would probably cost close to $1 billion with a hotel and Convention Center included in the complex, but I had 640 million reasons to sit on the warm sunny beach today and day-dream.

Sure I might have the money to then make a few demands, like the stadium will be on the Pinellas side of the region, but would any bank or contractor take me serious even if Rays owner Stuart Sternberg gave a “thumbs up” to a proposed stadium? Of course that is the great thing about daydreaming, even if it doesn’t materialize, you do not hurt anyone, cause economical chaos or potentially have death threats posted to your Twitter page. But if I could secure that amount, or even 50% of it, I would try to take a meeting with the Rays.

But that is only one angle of the proposed futuristic dream-scape that is invading my mind right now if I got the right combination. Still with over $1.5 billion dollars supposedly already taken in by Lotto retailers from sea-to-shining-sea, I have to be realistic and venture I might have to share it or split it more than 2-ways. So the reality is on the horizon I might not have $ 640 million reasons, but hey let’s just say I had $100 million reasons for argument’s sake.

If that was the situation, I would definitely get in good with my old Rays Season Ticket Rep Craig Champagne ( love that name) and purchase 5 seats for the entire season ($16,098.00 a seat ) in the Rays Avantair Home Plate Club. I would then get to the Trop. early enough to walk between Gate 1 and 4 and at each gate location select or hopefully find a father and son or couple who are at the stadium for the first time.

Playing the “perfect host” card, I would ask them if they were “willing” to give up their tickets for a pair in my section, but will not advise them in advance it is all-you-can-eat and a great view. If they do not accept, I will keep trying to find a suitor on either side of me for the game that night/day. I would take the tickets they exchanged and walk over to the ticket line and just hand them to a father and son or couple standing in line for tickets asking nothing in return but that they get some extra fun and excitement from their visit with the saved money.

But my great times would not end there. I would wait until one of those entertaining Park and Recreation Days also known as day time “getaway express” contests and surprise one group for each P&R Day during the season and treat them to free Rays gear, lunch and a future special surprise of 2 outfield game tickets for each kid in the group to a future Rays game during the weekend (maybe a concert night or Sunday).

Maybe this seems a bit over done and a tad too giving to some, but this team has done so much for me on so many other levels, giving back like this would just seem fair. But my paying it forward gesture would not stop there. I would get the membership of the “Maddon’s Maniacs” together once a year for a no holds bar throw-down possibly during a Boston or Yankee away series complete with food, beverages and possibly see if the Rays want to do something in unison with this event. I would purchase 10 VIP Event packages to each Rays/Hess Express Concert Series and award five of them to people who write an essay why they should be picked as a special VIP guest and meet the artist before the show. The last 5 VIP badges would be given out anonymously through the Rays staffers to fans who deserve a treat like this, or just show such commitment to the “Rays Way” it would seem criminal for them to miss out on such a fantastic prize.

Then of course during the season I might “ show up” at a seating section during the season with Rays fitted caps, possibly an ice cream or cotton candy guy in tow and give away a few boards or satchels of goodies to the fans. But even during all of this, I want nothing in return. No press, no First Pitch, no scoreboard or Jumbotron acknowledgment, just hope to be a card-carrying member of the Rays Republic from Day one giving back for 15 years of fantastic baseball and memories.

Gosh it is great to think like this, propose such great activities and rewards to people who visit the Trop. even if it would eventually end when the money dries up and only dust settles again in my wallet. So I rushed down to my neighborhood Sweetbay who are corporate partners with the Rays and plucked down $50 for tickets that could fulfill the dreams and aspirations of such a $640 windfall.

But much to my chagrin, Florida is not one of the state participating in the Mega Millions sweepstakes. That even with 1 in 176 million odds to win I can not get a single chance, a single iota of the proposed riches because my state in to part of the Mega Million empire. I am taken aback that a state that thrusts it’s Lotto and Powerball drawing to the forefront is missing from the National obsession tonight, but I know that maybe it is a good thing.

Money changes people, even with the most honest of intentions, futuristic charitable dreams and aspirations, sometimes they disappear when the numbers click and a huge check is thrust into your hands. But tonight someone outside the state of Florida will have a chance at that dream, that life-changing moment we all wish would pluck itself into our arms at least once. So instead I bought $20 of Powerball tickets. Hey that jackpot is $60 million. Not the huge windfall of the Mega, but could still bring about every aspiration and idea I have listed above……It’s now 10:55 pm, Wish me luck!

Three Outfielders to Fight for Undetermined MLB Stint

How do you think Tampa Bay Rays outfielders Brandon Guyer, Jesus Feliciano and Jeff Salazar are feeling right now. Each will get a shot at proving themselves over the next couple of days for a solo spot on the Rays roster to open the season, but it will come with an unspecified expiration date.

That is what really stinks about this last chance competition, the winner gets a one-in-a-lifetime chance to possibly see a banner unfolded and take part in the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day, possibly get a few well-earned starts in either left or right field, then poof! This segment of the dream will dissolve.

Each of them has to know while sweating and going through these last bushel of games their shot at immortality, their chance to put their own stamp on baseball hinges on the shoulder and wrist of one of their current Spring teammates. If you are one of the three do you wish a speedy recovery? Or do you want rehab assignments, preparation, a chance to gain a foothold in the door and keep it from totally closing even after Sam Fuld or B J Upton are deemed fit and ready to roll.

Makes that concept of winning as a team seem more meaningful right now. No matter how superb or brilliant Guyer, Feliciano or Salazar play in the next week, two are Spring camp invitees ( Salazar, Feliciano ), while one has been a part of the Rays magic last season ( Guyer ). Each have made impression both positive this Spring, along with a few they hope the Rays forget about totally.

But in the end only one will stand on the Tropicana Field First Base line hearing their name echo over the public address system, permanently etching their name in the annuals of baseball. I truly do not have a clear-cut favorite out of the three, each has shown they have the skills, abilities and work ethic to be on this level, but two will only garner silver and bronze. Who among the three will put bat on ball, provide gasping moments in the field, push the other two towards the brink of elimination by speeding by their peers with resounding grace and dignity.

It is times like this I wish the MLB roster would expand to 30 players so players like these three can get a chance at not only the lifestyle they eagerly want, but get the time, instruction and preparation that could make them household names some day, possibly be the first phone call if anyone goes down, or someone is needed to energize or bring another focal point to this team.

Guyer has the added bonus of having a minor league option, so he could be “the one” and also be able to board the famed “Durham pipeline” and come back multiple times during the season. Salazar and Feliciano would have to pass waivers, the possibly accept a tour at Triple-A for an additional chance at redemption, or promotion back up to “the Show”. Each has a clear and open path towards standing on that foul line on Opening Day, now who wants it bad enough and is willing to prove it. Game on fellas, game on!

A New Fan is Born

Yesterday at 8:48 am, a new member (19 1/2 “, 7#, 2 oz) of my personal branch of the always expanding Rays Republic took his first breathe of cool Florida air. It is still way too early to know what the future has in store for myself and my only grandson Mason Gregory Cuonzo, but if this Tampa Bay Rays die-hard grandfather has anything to do with it, he will someday pass on the love of baseball to his own children.

Oh how I wish I could find a tricked-out De Lorean and go forward to your adventurous 8-10 years and teach you early on the tricks of the game I learned on the clay fields of North West Little League. I want to make his eyes widen with baseball tales of no tee-ball back then, but full contact hitting, fielding and running like a deer, sliding into a base and loving every minute of it.

I want to teach Mason all three arm slot positions so he can decide his own style of throwing from overhand, ¾ or maybe even side-arm. I want to now commit to throwing the white sphere with him until my arm falls off. To hitting infinite fungos to him either deep out in the grassy knolls or on the hardened clay until the bucket of balls becomes tattered and as orange as the clay.

I will not interfere and make him hit or throw from the left-side. As I toss in balls for him to deposit in the outfield or beyond the fence, I promise to not direct which side of the plate he stands, but  I will teach him footwork, leverage and the art of the check-swing.

That his grandfather is willing and able to commit that I will be there in rain, Sun and even blustery windy days watching him play, cheering him and his teammates on, because that is what proud grandparents do.

I will teach him of our families ties to baseball. How John Carl ” Hans” Wittig tossed the rock for the New York Giants from 1938-39, 1941 and 1943. I might forget to tell him he also played in his last MLB game on June 22,1949 for those dastardly Red Sox. I want him to know baseball is in his blood because all the men in my family tree has played some form of the game.

My father played on diamonds measured out on the coral beaches of the South Pacific. How before my birth my father’s love for the game was evident as he went to countless games at Waterfront Park and then Al Lang Field when he settled in St. Petersburg, Florida.

How he taught me the game, bringing its brilliance into my life making sure there was a television at his Union 76 station so I could watch the Nationally televised Saturday afternoon contests. After these games we both would grab gloves and go out into the alley behind the shop and throw the ball while he showed me baseball grips.

Unfortunately my father did not get to see me play past Pony League as his life ended before he could call out “that’s my son” and beam a smile from ear-to-ear. I played baseball with passion and joy until my Junior year in college then forsaken it for a sport where money flowed while baseball players still needed part-time jobs to survive. I would find out 4 years later that it was the worst move of my young life.

I never lost the feeling of the grand game, sneaking off to watch games in many MLB cities on my NFL treks. How I returned home and becoming an avid fan of the St. Petersburg Class-A Cardinals, even catching my first baseball on a sliding catch down the grassy berm in Rightfield.

I have so many thing to show you. So many extraordinary things to teach you. So many things about the heartbeat of baseball that will both enlighten and take your breathe away in the same moment.

But you are only two days old now, much too young for a heart-to-heart or your first glove. But I will start you out right and get you a Rays creeper so the game can grow with you. I have got to get you hook on this game while you still think grandpa is cool and baseball is awesome.

But sleep tight for now young Mason, because I know when I take you to your first baseball game, you will be hooked. The love for this game definitely runs deep in our family. Hope my daughter agrees with me here. Then again, she is a football fan.

Gomes Looks Like the Odd-Man Out ….For Now

Sometimes the words speak for themselves. Earlier today both Rays Manager Joe Maddon and RP Brandon Gomes who was in the mix for that last spot on the Bullpen bench basically gave us a preview of the upcoming decision for that spot. Let’s take a gander at both comments, and you can see for yourself, Gomes just couldn’t get healthy and on his game in time to salvage a guaranteed roster spot heading into the season.

Both Maddon and Gomes seemed to be on the same wavelengths after Tuesdays contest against AL East Boston, with Maddon adding he felt Gomes who was coming off recent back surgery was “close, but not quite back to form”. Gomes himself mirrored those comments by stating “ I’m confident, I’m still very close to where I need to be.”

No matter if it is simply a question of familiar word play like potato, potatoe, tomato, tomatoe, the reality is both Maddon and Gomes know there is still some polishing and regaining strength yet until he is ready again for the MLB grind.

Gomes most likely will spend the first weeks of the 2012 season at Triple-A Durham. That in itself might be the best medicine for Gomes as he regains his game and waits for Durham Manager Charlie Montoya to call him into his office and tell him he is again on the way to Tampa Bay.

Todays performance where Gomes surrendered 4 walks, a single but at least got a pitcher’s best friend (double play) surely showed both Manager and player there is still some work to be done. And do not fret for Gomes, because you can bet Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey will get emails, videos and maybe even a few phone calls when Gomes shows his top stuff again.

But that is the life of a young reliever in the MLB. You can be up in “The Show” one day, then suddenly be heading for the green pastures in the farm system the next. Stability when you are trying to make a reputation is scarce, and good luggage can be your best investment.

But Gomes showed in his stint with the Rays in 2011 that he has the right combination of ingredients to be successful at this level with a a slurvy breaking ball (78-83 mph), a nice sinking 2-seam fast ball (86-93 mph) and a splitter (83-85 mph) which at optimal times can make a few knees buckle at the plate. But his stuff right is not on par with the likes of the heavy hitters of the AL East, at least not at this juncture in Spring Training.

And he is not sitting on his 2011 pitching laurels where he posted a 40 relief appearances over the season for the team after appearing 20 times for Durham before he was called up the first time last season. Tied for second among MLB rookies with 29 appearances after the 2011 All-Star break while also sporting 20 K’s and a awesome .202 opponents batting average. Ironically, Gomes made his MLB debut on May 4, 2011 for Wade Davis, who possibly pushed Gomes out with his move to the Bullpen for 2012.

Interesting side note, before his call-up last April, Gomes served as Durham’s closer collecting 6 saves in April while stitching out a 1.07 ERA and perfect 7-for-7 mark in save opportunities. He even bolstered his interest by the Rays after posting 40 strikeouts and only 7 walks in his 25.1 innings of work with a cherry on top of a .187 opponent’s average.

So as you can see, Gomes has the talent, the goods and the ability to again be back up here very, very soon. I would not be surprised with the way the reliever corps can sometimes be a revolving door that as soon as the team feels he is healthy and again showing his consistent approach to the plate, Gomes will again be pulling on his # 47 jersey. I would not be surprised if Gomes is again up with the Rays this May, with a shot at keeping his spot this time for the rest of the season. 

Niemann Should Claim the Rays Fifth Slot

So the Tampa Bay Rays are going to draw this drama out for one more day. Seems kind of silly since we basically know that barring a possible trade, the team will probably hoist the “Tall Texan” Jeff Niemann as their fifth starter for the regular season. His main opponent, Wade Davis has basically conceded the decision after a bad outing in his last Spring start. With Davis’s comments after his start on Sunday, you would have thought the decision was already made and he was eager to hit the Bullpen and come out swinging this season in the latter innings.

But do not think a little competitive edge did not favor Niemann since he has clearly been in this position before and has played his part staying consistent on the mound this Spring, trying to provide ammunition for name being selected for the last rotation spot. It was only a few seasons ago Niemann and Jason Hammel were in different minor league games that were to decide the fifth spot, but Hammel ended up being traded to the Colorado Rockies at the conclusion of that day’s activities, which made that Springs decision moot.

In all honesty, Niemann has done nothing this Spring to fall from grace with the Rays staff. Even his refusal of a small raise and going to salary arbitration over a measly $500,000 ( he lost) was viewed as a “business decision” and the Rays front office holds no animosity towards his Winter decision. In hindsight, the fact Niemann had the confidence and internal constitution to stand up to the Rays in arbitration. Some say arrogance can be the best gift for a pitcher.

In Niemann’s corner is the fact he has posted 3 straight 10+ wins seasons as a starter. Only former Ray Scott Kazmir can say the same. How soon we all forget Niemann started 2011 0-3 in 4 starts before he went 11-4 in 19 starts the rest of the season.  Add onto this the fact Niemann has been an amazing “road warrior” for the Rays holding a .700 winning percentage (21-9) over the last 3 years, which is second best in the majors. Suddenly you see a big hidden part of Niemann’s success for the Rays.

But could Niemann or Davis be headed elsewhere, and the current decision is being withheld as the Rays take a last chance last-minute offering for someone currently “out of country”. It is pretty common knowledge by now that the Rays covet Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki as a great addition to their backstop corp and want to bring him into their fold. Problem is, neither Niemann nor Davis really whets A’s GM Billy Beane’s whistle, but with a delayed announcement and the Athletics playing over the International Dateline in Japan, maybe the time difference is Rays Executive VP of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman’s last grasp to try to land Suzuki.

Add into the equation that fact that Rays Manager Joe Maddon has set a few parameters as to who would get the “ 5th gig”, and with Davis’s ERA sitting at an uncomfortable 4.91, barring a trade or possibly Niemann getting knocked out by a crossbeam in the Rays Clubhouse, the decision seems a bit moot.

One of Maddon’s prerequisites was “ who can help us win game early on in the season”. Not sure if either of the two pitchers have distanced themselves in this category, but if you take into consideration Maddon second criteria of “ who can be effective in the Bullpen”, then Niemann is the guy who will inherit the 5th slot. If Niemann had great reliever qualities, he would have at least had a reserved seat in the Bullpen in October, but he was not even on the Rays post season roster.

Not knocking Niemann as a reliever, but the guy tends to need more time to warm-up, and as a reliever, your time is extremely limited. Add onto that the fact Davis has already commented he would go to the Bullpen and “kick butt”. Even based on that kind of comment by Davis, you get the honest feeling that the decision has already been made in at least one player’s mind.

Maybe this is a blessing in disguise for Davis who sometimes tends to hide some of his velocity on the hill, keeping it in reserve if needed. In the Bullpen, he can let it rain strikes and bring it full-bore and I bet Niemann will be the first guy to greet him on the dugout steps.

Some will say Niemann is the more polished of the two, but he has also shown a quality of getting fatigued and injured at the most important moments over the last few seasons. Still, Niemann boasts a .639 winning percentage over the last 3 MLB seasons (min 75 starts), and that is currently 8th best in the majors and  is 27 points above Rays southpaw David Price (.612 percent). That is a considerably nice “stat” egg to have in your basket when consistency and winning are huge factors in this decision.

It was really Niemann’s position to lose this Spring. Barring an injury over the last few games or a trade out of leftfield, he owns the 5th slot in the Rays rotation. The deeper you look into consecutive good outings and subsequential winning streaks, Niemann stands head and shoulders above Davis for that last rotation spot. But then again, there are not many who stand taller on the hill than the Texan.

Hellboy Showed his Mortal Side

All of us in the Rays Republic knew this day would rear its ugly head. That we would have to admit to ourselves that sometimes the most golden of arms can have their tarnished and iron pyrite moments. That somehow reality would thrust itself into our belief system that Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson was in fact a mire mortal.

Maybe it was that unrealistic pinning of the name “Hellboy” that gave us all the Superhero image and hope of an immortal hurling the rock every 5 days. Since the Rays disposed of the word “devil” back in November, 2007, we have all collectively awaited the appearance of a sorcerer on the hill that possessed evil, mean and nasty breaking stuff and held his pitch execution as the weapon of his opponents demise. Maybe the nickname just helps his establish and embellish the tales and legend a bit, making him seem invincible, even in the Spring.

On Saturday, we found out this unique player we have hoisted skyward as an equalizer is human after all. In possibly his worst outing as a professional, Hellboy showed the Rays Republic that he can be hurt. That sometimes the executioner’s axe can fall either way. It was a bit painful to visualize as Hellickson endured his vanquish and suffering solo on the mound somehow surrendering hit after hit that transformed into an insurmountable mountain of runs until finally Rays Manager Joe Maddon possibly saw the fire finally extinguished in Hellboy’s eyes.

Hellboy faced 22 Twins sluggers and surrendered 11 hits and 10 runs and was removed after facing 3 hitters in the fourth inning. Hellickson basically gave up hits to 50% of the Minnesota Twins line-up and offered up 2 Home Runs to Minnesota Twins DH Justin Morneau. Hellboy today met the arch-rival who could somehow steal his thunder and produced his own. Morneau was the most prolific Hellboy assassin producing a perfect 2-for-2 day with 5 RBI. All this from a hitter that has posted a .154 average this Spring.

Suddenly the magic that Hellboy conjured up with 2 strikes on his adversaries was hindered and missing. Breaking pitches that used to drop magically into the strike zone missed while his blazing fastball seemed mire 10ths of an inch away from their desired locations. Even with his execution flawed on this day, Hellboy only gave away 2 free passes (walks).

People forget that MLB pitchers have bad days, that even with the Sun bright and the temperatures optimal for success, sometimes the magic is not there and loss is on the horizon. In 30 starts during a season, you have to realistically expect turmoil and troublesome outings that defy the usual and showcase flaws, faults and possibly adjustments.

On Saturday Hellboy just reminded all of us he is a developing pitcher, not a defined and machine yet on the mound. Maybe this all happening is a good thing? Hellickson’s next start could be against the Pirates or Phillies, but beyond that on the horizon might be a rematch with these Twins and a possible shot at redemption on April 3rd in the Rays Grapefruit finale. Common sense rules that Hellickson will not pitch in that final game, but wouldn’t be a great confidence building moment if he came out and tossed some scoreless frames against the same squad that brought him back down to Earth.

Who knows if 2 Springs from now this might be the defining moment of Hellicksons emergence into the MLB top ranks, the low point that propels him upward and onwards. Be honest here with yourself for a moment, during the sophomore seasons of David Price and James Shields, we expected the same magic and brilliance that made us put them on that tall pedestal and think of them in immortal terms after their own rookie campaigns. Maybe this short fall from grace was a good thing.

Hellboy will be fine. Even though he now boasts a horrible 15.30 ERA this Spring, there are positive things to take from this outing to work on, break down and make into a learning experience. This outing should not worry us at all, sure we saw a cog in our pitching machine strip a gear today,but there are positives that will evolve out of this. Hellboy will not lose his rotation slot because of this, he will get a better understanding of his faults and flaws in his craft way in advance of the first series in April.

This outing also prepared all of us for the reality that Hellboy is a developing pitcher who still has kinks and flaws to his game. It also showed us that his immortal and unrealistic expectations were vivid in our collective minds, that his nickname associated with an imaginary Superhero might indeed come with a cost. But most of all through his day of human frailty we saw that Hellboy is adamently determined and prepared for whatever his arch enemies do to him. You can be sure he has always washed this outing from his skin and is already preparing for his next start, possibly showing us why we gave his that immortal status in the first place.

Was Bush an Accident Waiting to Happen?

I truly want to find a way to somehow spin this into a positive post, but I can’t.

I am not only appalled, but I am both emotionally angered and saddened simultaneously with the recent events involving Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospect Matt Bush. I hate to admit it, but this is clearly a definite third strike against a guy who has tried to face his demons on his own, and now might be mandated legally to force-feed himself some real medicine and counseling to help deal with his issues.

I am a compassionate human being who truly want to stand up for Bush and his actions, but the reality is that I could not even look him in the face right now for the vile and angry triad that would spill from my lips. I want to show empathy for his past, present and future struggles with alcohol and it’s dependency issues, but to me, Bush broke what I consider the fundamental cardinal rule.

Matthew Brian Bush got willingly into an automobile knowing he was impaired and drove not a few miles, but at least a half hour on US 41 North from Sarasota to Port Charlotte, and in the process Bush could have easily impacted countless additional innocent lives or untold damage before this final horrific event unfolded in front of his Dodge SUV.

That angers me to a state of rage that is not fit for print, and shows the lack of concern or even basic principle of common decency and responsibility that we all assume when we collectively get into our vehicles and take to the roadways. What angers me more to the core is the fact that Bush had an alert to his inebriated state when he hit a pole during his blurry travels back. This first accident should have jolted Bush back into the reality of his state of mind, but Bush still drove on. And that is where my anger increases tri-fold because money for cab fare, a hotel or even the distance should not be the issue for ignoring this basic safety issue.

Getting into a car after even feeling a bit tipsy in my opinion is asking for something bad to happen. I know personally if I go over my predetermined 2-3 beer limit I have alternative solutions to a safe night home. My salvation is a cab ride , a designated driver or non-drinking friend or maybe even a Good Samaritan. These are the options I have laid out for myself in the even of a tipsy evening. I wonder if Bush had any inclinations to any of these secondary actions, or if he just ignored them like that incident with the pole. You do not get into a car impaired because you could effect and change another life, not just your own.

When the Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy asked Bush if this was his “serious awakening”, Bush responded in his arrest report, “ It wasn’t, he had ‘already been there’.” To compound the issue, Bush admitted to the arresting officer he had “stopped and bought a few (adult beverages) and kept driving”, a clear sign of his addiction consuming him. Seems as if things were piling onto Bush with a vengeance prior to this final accident, but he did not heed their signals.

Some of you might not know this of my background, but my father owned a towing service when I was young and I did a lot of the accident calls with him, even at night. I also worked for several police rotation and towing services from 1987-1994 were I got to see the aftermath and destruction first hand. I even had the unfortunate event of having to hold an elderly woman’s hand back in 1988 as the life was leaving her and I was helpless to help her since she was impaled and pinned into her car by the steering column after a head-on collision with a drunk driver. That is only one story of the many I have witnessed first-hand where the effects of alcohol took the wheel and severely changed people’s lives in an instant.

I understand addiction. I want to have empathy for Bush, but even after his horrific crime, he drove away completely oblivious that his SUV had rolled over the helmet of a downed motorcyclist. Even less of a defense is his blood alcohol limit of .180 which clearly is 2 times the Florida legal limit. Truly Bush’s demon was firmly at the controls.

I wonder what broke Bush? Was it the clarity that he might be back in Triple-A Durham and not sitting in the AC confines of Tropicana Field? Could all the expectations, responsibilities have somehow descended on him that day and plunged him into this liquid abyss and Bush knew of no other alternative.

For his ignorance Bush now sits behind bars currently without an attorney and not eligible for bail an a elderly motorcycle rider fights for his life at Lee Memorial Hospital. How his evening would have been different if Bush had been forthright and just picked up his phone, call a teammate, a friend, a Rays clubhouse attendant…..a cab and admitted he was not fit to be behind the wheel. This angers me to the core because this not the road a baseball career, or a life should ever travel.

Upton Needs to “Get Back on the Horse” Soon

I am beginning to worry a bit about Tampa Bay Rays CF B J Upton. Not because he is missing vital Spring time in the field, but because sometimes letting a fear fester can be his own worst enemy. The reasoning for this worry stems from a recent collision between Upton and Rays LF Desmond Jennings that left both with soreness, stiffness and bouts of pain.

The worst injury unfortunately is the one we can not see with our eyes, or predict with any clarity. The mind is notorious for making the imagery of the event and the aftermath blur and sometimes amplify to the point where the athlete doesn’t venture into that same situation again with abandon, but with caution and fear for a return engagement with the grass and a visit from the Rays training staff.

This is the fear I have right now that Upton’s confidence is damaged. Not beyond repair, but he needs to get into game action soon, face the demon of another “dying quail between himself and the Rays infield, or a long drive high in the gap that he can run under, or take command of with confidence. Right now Upton could have the same hesitation that an NFL receiver feels initially after a jarring hit over the middle, or when he is somersaulting through the air after being up-ended.

Hearing footsteps, taking an extra degree of caution while running towards a ball can be detrimental to the style and devil-may-care attitude Upton has shown as he has risen up the ranks to become a top-tier defensive outfielder. Taking a second off his response time, a hesitation in his start towards a ball in flight or fearing another collision with a teammate could derail all the good deeds he has done in the Rays outfield since 2007.

The cure for this illness is simple. Upton needs to get back onto the field as soon as possible, have a high fly ball hit into the gap or in front of him and he needs to make the play like he did 1,000’s of times before his recent collision. The problem is right now, he is not on the field. Taking that first step onto the field during a contest is the first vital step in his recovery.

Sure some will say he needs to heal his physical wounds before he can stave off his mental issues, but that is malarkey. Getting back on his proverbial horse, seeing the ball again as just a white sphere and not something that almost took his livelihood away is paramount. Miscalculations happen every day in sports either by players in the field or on the mound, and they bounce back with better clarity and understanding of what to do “next time” a similar situation rears its ugly head.

A good word of advice is possibly Upton becoming more vocal, being the QB in the outfield and calling off infielders or his corner outfielders when he feels he has a legitimate shot at a ball. I still remember seeing a collision between Jose Cruz Jr and Damon Rolls in shallow Right field near the foul line in 2004 that shook both players to their internal cores. Both players ended up battling their own separate demons after that event, but both also tried to get back on the field ASAP to start the mental healing process.

For many MLB seasons Upton has thrown his body around the turf in the Trop. or on the road without a care or worry or fear of mortal consequences. It is a unteachable quality to give 110% on a play most would deem a loss even before an attempt, then gripping the ball in the glove and hearing the cheers all around you. Upton needs to get back on the field and make such a play and return to that cocky level of play that endears him to us.

Banging into walls, diving face-first with his glove and arm extended is part of the work that Upton has signed up for as a MLB outfielder, and he is very good at it. But right now with him on the sidelines, letting his mind play the event over and over again, it is a dangerous time for Upton.

The sooner Upton can again take stride towards the field, take total command again of his position and hope for a redemption screaming line drive hit either to his left or right. Until that moment, Upton will rethink the event in his head, replaying it, trying to dissect it like a Science experiment instead of accepting it is part of the game. Mental toughness is as important to his game persona as his sweet swing. Letting him simmer in the dugout possibly doing a replay over and over in his mind is not good for him or the team.

I have a gut feeling the first fly ball into the gaps or in front of Upton is key to his return to the field. No matter if it is BP or game time, that first blast towards him will cause a reaction, my guess it will trigger the old “Upton” to get on his high horse and pull that stray ball into his glove like he has 1,000’s of times before. But he must first step on the field for the real on-the-job healing to begin.



Briggy Baseball Feeling the Pain of Bad Timing

Coming into this Spring, we all knew that this Tampa Bay Rays squad had front row dugouts seats for an old-fashioned knock-down, drag out fight for their shortstop position. Both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac’s names were ranked 1 and 2 at the very top of the contending candidates list.

One of the critical attributed for this middle infield position is a keen sense of timing that can sometimes make or break a play, or even someone’s shot at keeping that coveted spot.

Rodriguez was hampered a bit early on in Spring camp by a linger cold, then a short setback after an Inter-squad game on March 8th brought to light a sprained left index finger possibly caused after Minnesota Twin OF Denard Span stole second base and S-Rod might have jammed his finger in applying the tag.

Suddenly it seemed timing might be smiling on “Briggy Baseball”, with a cane to separate himself from Rodriguez in the race by some considerable lengths.

But this “horse race” was far from over as Brignac recently had his own dark turn recently after injuring his foot and now being basically “shelved” for the time being from game play as his plantar fasciitis injury will do more to dictate how soon before the end of the Grapefruit season Brignac can resume the fight for his 2011 Opening Day position.

Best case scenario has Brignac getting daily treatments, the injury tearing itself and then a short rehab period as the injury heals itself. Basically, if the injury takes too much time, Brignac could lose his slot in the shortstop battle with Elliot Johnson currently pining for an infield spot himself on the Rays roster, possibly even manning the 6-slot if Rodriguez has a fall from grace.

Some would say the 2-man horse race suddenly has a fast approaching dark horse coming up quickly on the outside (Johnson) and is trying to overtake the pack and get his nose squarely and  firmly in the Rays SS race.

That is what is so frustrating about this recent setback for Brignac who knows all too well the sands in the Rays decision hourglass is fading and all Brignac can do is take a “wait and see” situation until his body makes the first move towards eventual recovery.

But his body better make a move soon or Brignac could face the realization of starting the 2012 season on the bench, possibly lower than second on the middle infield depth chart.

Another bout of bad timing is the injury is taking place at the time when his family strolls in from Louisiana and provides their annual Cajun Celebration complete with homemade Boudin, Jambalaya, Red Beans and Rice and a velvety bread pudding for teammates and Rays staff members.

You know Briggy Baseball would much rather be handing the ball off for a picture perfect 6-4-3 double play the n handing a luncheon box filled with down home goodness.

Until Brignac get the “thumbs up” from Rays Trainer Ron Porterfield, he will just have to keep himself mentally and physically sharp hoping he can get into games near the beginning or middle of next week with an eye at sliding past Johnson for that second slot on the SS depth chart.

Then Brignac will have to up his game during the beginning of the regular season by slowly chipping away at Rodriguez’s grip on the SS spot, then thrust himself firmly into regaining his old starting spot. But for now all Brignac can do is hope and pray for a speedy tear and repair of his foot injury and his eventual return to the Rays line-up.

Timing, it can be said can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Briggy Baseball is hoping right now that time is on his side and he still has a fighting chance at possibly retaining his Opening Day spot in the middle of the Rays infield.

For some reason, I would make a solid bet of Brignac providing a huge last-ditch effort over the last few games to keep his game style fresh in the minds of the Rays staff, possibly winning this race by a single foot.

GTL Rays Style

I know almost everyone has heard of the phrase GTL made famous now by the MTV series “Jersey Shore”. Well considering they did a stint in South Florida a few years ago, I am thinking we should do a small homage to the GTL events that members of the Tampa Bay Rays could have done for today’s “off day”. The original meaning of course was Gym, Tan and Laundry for the Seaside Heights, New Jersey crew, but I’m thinking the Port Charlotte, Florida regiment has their own versions of this classic phrasing.

Gas, Tan, Lotion: You know a few of the younger and single members of the Rays hit the area beaches since it is Spring Break for college students around the country. Since this region of SW Florida tends to have some of the best beaches in the country, it is only natural students would hit this region not only for the emerald waters and picture-perfect sunsets, but the allure of professional athletes possibly throwing a football or getting some extra tannage on the newly minted white domes.

Grate, Trowel, Luck: Just a few miles up the coast from Port Charlotte is Venice Beach. The reason I mention this is it has an activity at this peaceful beach that is special to this part of Florida, and it can be a great adventure for families or just a group of friends. It is shark tooth hunting, and it is as simple as it sounds. All you do is wade out into the estuary waterways scoop up a shovel load of bottom soil and sift it through a grate/filter system with the remnants and fine-toothed enamel teeth of long gone sharks materialize in the trays. Sure most can be of the small or even tiny variety, but every once in a while you can see a huge tooth of a species that used to not only swam this region, but possibly perished somewhere in land up the Peace or Alafia rivers.

Photo @HallerDave

Gig,Troll,Land ’em: Several members of the Rays PR Department today hit the Boca Grande flats and open waters to fish, relax and sue it as their own bonding moment themselves. Just like the Rays squad, these guys will be together over that 180 day stretch and finding common ground, landing a few tasty lunch morsels and getting some Sun on their own newly mowed heads will do wonders come April.

Grip, Tee, Links: Considering so many of the Rays also are pretty good on the golf links, you could easily see the likes of B J Upton, David Price, James Shield, Matt Joyce and even Evan Longoria tee up a few at one of the local golf courses. With a day off, the links can be a great way to just have fun at a leisurely pace, kick back and clown a bit with friends and just enjoy a hot and humid Florida Spring day. Problem is, will these crews allow mulligans?

Grease, Tighten, Loosen: Who knows, maybe Rays skipper Joe Maddon could have gotten a few of his squad to help him do a bit of fix-up on his new ’55 Chevy. I remember someone telling me earlier the new ride had some spongy brakes, and this could be an additional bonding moment as Maddon, maybe a few of his staff and a player or two tinkering under the hood of a car most people can fix without a CPU system. I know I would have volunteered for that duty.

I know a majority of the team possibly just slept in later, did errands and adventures with their family, possibly doing some breakfast in one of the quaint and great restaurants in the region before embarking on day trips or even just lounging out enjoying the sights and sounds of their families. This was a needed moment for this team as a day like this can do so much to recharge and energize a team as they begin to enter the stretch run of the Grapefruit League season or as I like to call it Grapefruit, Tangerine and Lemon league. That’s my version of Spring GTL.